Reflection 36: Scientific Method

December 12, 2008

(Copyright © 2008) 

We’ve all had our trial run at the scientific method, usually in grammar or middle school. We’ve duly partnered up, signed-out supplies and equipment, controlled for variable conditions, followed procedures, made observations, recorded data, presented results, and learned whether we’d supported the teacher’s hypothesis or done it all wrong.

 

In other words, we were trained to create a situation for producing meaningful results. Which at the time meant coming up with the right answer, but beyond that, we disciplined ourselves to behave in certain ways so that our results would agree with what was already common knowledge. We weren’t finding out anything new; we were calibrating ourselves so we could sometimes claim to act objectively. That is, to avoid wittingly imposing our personal assumptions, views, and emotions on what we were doing.

 

The point of the “experiment” was to get us to act as if we were scientists. To become a scientist, you must act like a scientist. The teacher walked us through a model of the scientific method so we could find out what that might feel like. Some of us took to this strange way of doing things, others sat back and let our partners do the walking for the two of us.

 

My point here is that scientific results are primarily meaningful in situations that scientists would approve of because they conform to agreed-upon conditions set by the scientific community.

 

Most of us are not scientists and do not act like scientists. The situations in which we thrive are not governed by scientists. We cook, paint, hum along, daydream, go bowling—and are perfectly happy to lead our nonscientific lives without once thinking of data or procedures.

 

The funny thing is, many scientists would claim that the findings coming out of situations that make their conscious lives meaningful apply to us as well because they are universally valid and true (until proven otherwise). Which is odd because we nonscientists do not make the counterclaim that the situations in which we are disciplined and creative are meant to benefit scientists (or followers of other, equally exacting, disciplines).

 

This is an obvious example of nonsymmetrical consciousness. What’s true for me is true for you, but not vice versa. Maybe you have to have a certain chutzpah to be a scientist. When humanoids are all extinct, it won’t make any difference; our planet will go its own way—as it always has. But right now we are caught up in our versions of that planet as represented in consciousness. Some representations, it turns out, are truer than others. And some former scientific truths have been put aside. Phlogiston, for instance was once thought to make the air we breathe combustible. That’s where flames came from. You don’t hear it mentioned anymore. Doctors don’t still apply leeches, either, because science no longer believes in the four temperaments or four humors (leeching got rid of “excess” blood). Was the Manhattan Project (in which a team of scientists made the atom bomb possible) a good idea? Even some scientists would now say it wasn’t. What about arms merchant Alfred Nobel on his death bed agreeing to fund a peace prize with the profits he’d made? Which is truer, high explosives or world peace? Then there are all those chemicals (pesticides, dioxins, PCBs, PBDEs, toxic metals) showing up in mothers’ milk around the globe; without scientists, they wouldn’t be there. Which is it to be, breast feeding or the march of progress? In my mind, one is truth itself, the other a self-serving conceit.

 

If truth is to be found on planet Earth; it lives in the human mind. It is the product of conscious minds exercising themselves in particular ways in certain situations. The military made, tested, and dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. As a result, 220 thousand people died by the end of that year, followed by many others who died slower deaths from radiation poisoning. Ever since, nations have sought to guarantee such weapons would never be used again (while maintaining stockpiles of nuclear weapons just in case). Which is truer, the scientific triumph of the bomb, or the slaughter in its wake?

 

As a thought experiment (an exercise in just-pretend consciousness), put yourself in Harry Truman’s shoes (his situation) as he weighed arguments for and against dropping those two bombs. First, do it based on the information Truman had available to him in August 1945; then do it knowing what you know today. Clearly, dropping the first bomb was a terrible experiment because no one knew what would happen. But why drop the second after the first proved so devastating? Was it just because the Japanese were so slow to surrender? Or was it similar to the case of a murderer killing his victim with one stab, then killing him again and again in a rage?

 

What is the common element uniting the situations within which scientists ply their skills? As with businessmen, doctors, and soldiers, it must be the salary received for the work. Consciousness can be applied many ways, but in each case it has its price. That aspect of the scientific method is not much discussed.

 

Which makes me wonder whether truth has any meaning at all, even in the most conscious of minds. I now think Luigi Pirandello was right: it’s true if you think so. Time for full disclosure. I am a low-ranking science buff. I subscribed to Popular Science in the 1940s, and was the first person to subscribe to McGraw-Hill’s (then) new science magazine (name long forgotten). I did well in physics and chemistry in high school, and, logically enough, went off to MIT. Where I discovered science appealed to certain kinds of minds—minds that liked to speak with great authority while avoiding displays of emotion. I saw that as a macho kind of mind (there were nine female students in my day) which did not appeal to my more exploratory kind of mind. After two years, I transferred to Columbia in New York City, where I majored in the humanities.

 

MIT in those days was a situation unto itself, a haven for men who didn’t like asking for directions because it made them feel weak and submissive. It attracted students who thrived more by telling, not asking questions. We sat dutifully through lecture after lecture, taking notes, memorizing them, feeding them back on weekly quizzes. The first two years were largely the same for all students: physics, calculus, chemistry, mechanical drawing, engineering, with a token humanities course. You had to be committed to such a situation from the start. I leaked out of the mold I was poured into, so I left. Subsequently, I leaked out of other molds as well. Truth, for me, has always been elsewhere.

 

Here’s the irony: truth has to be a truth you can believe in. It has to flow naturally from your situation at the time. Which is why scientists stick by their approved methods. For myself, I pursue the elusive truth of consciousness because the situated mind is one place I have yet to fully explore. Novelty, not sameness, turns me on. So far my research has shown that my consciousness is highly fallible. On the fringe of awareness, I see things that aren’t there, and don’t see things that demonstrably are. At the center, I’m often on autopilot and am conscious only when forced into it by a novel turn of events. Now I’m interested in times when I’m fully alert and awake, and know I am—usually when I have a question to ask, or a new puzzle to solve.

 

What kind of situation is it that sets my consciousness going? Not one based on statistics or prescribed methods. I’m after one-of-a-kind events that are meaningful nonetheless, such as the episodes I’ve shared in earlier posts. I’ll be on this course for a long while yet, sharing bulletins from time to time via this blog.

 

If you’d like to share such episodes from your own experience, I’d be glad to hear from you.

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4 Responses to “Reflection 36: Scientific Method”

  1. richard said

    the scientific method does not always lead to the right answer…it is the method used by scientists to guide the process…the true scientist must expect any answer and the results must be repeatable….the use of leeches has returned… they are used to remove blood in reattached/grafted tissues while the micro-circulation develops….
    there are two very different academic worlds out there…the sciences and the arts…my problem with the arts is that there is no scientific method….any interpretation of history, philosophy, or work of non-fiction is acceptable…in science there is only one interpretation of the results…this is why you transferred to Columbia…..

    • Steve Perrin said

      Richard, in your comment, you said:

      “there are two very different academic worlds out there…the sciences and the arts…my problem with the arts is that there is no scientific method….any interpretation of history, philosophy, or work of non-fiction is acceptable…in science there is only one interpretation of the results…this is why you transferred to Columbia…..”

      Yes, there are at least two such worlds. Each with its tested standards and methods. I don’t think it is legitimate to say that the trouble with the arts is that they are not sciences (nor vice versa). The best interpretation of a work of literature is one that accounts for all the data (ranging from facts to hints to vague suggestions) provided by the author. Some interpretations are in fact ambiguous because the full context of the events narrated may not be clear. But ambiguity is not limited to the arts; science has its share. Positivism strips numbers of their context in claiming that only numbers are meaningful–as if the meaning were in the numbers themselves and not in their relationship with the situation in which they emerge. One person plus another person = two persons in relationship. The relationship is every bit as important as the individuals themselves.

      As to why I switched from MIT to Columbia 56 years ago, I can only say that the situation in which I found myself was extremely complex and everchanging. One key event was my living in a fraternity at the time, only to discover that persons of any color other than white were not welcome. I had a hard time believing in the impartiality of science when those who practiced it were so rigidly biased. What other assumptions were they hiding under the table? I opted out to pursue disciplines where all persons were welcome, not only those who met arbitrary criteria of acceptability.

      I highly recommend Michael Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge which depicts one man’s struggle for acceptance within a scientific community (physical chemistry) that (initially) rejected his work. It is the best work I know of about the scientific method and the personal rigor required to practice it. Science is a human discipline, after all, and as we know, humans will be human because they can’t help themselves.

      Thanks for the comment. –Steve from Planet Earth

  2. richard said

    you mentioned…. I now think Luigi Pirandello was right: it’s true if you think so.

    that’s the basis of religious fundamentalism …..faith is “scientific proof” of what is stated in the Bible…..creationism is based on faith that an event happened some 6000 years ago….

    Where would we be without the scientific method.

    • Steve Perrin said

      Richard, thanks for the comment.

      In quoting Pirandello, I was offering that title of one of his plays as a summary of how most people arrive at personal truth. Yes, it is a frighteningly low standard, but there you are. Scientists also operate by a similar standard, but they have the good sense to ask others to stand where they are standing, look over their shoulder, and see if they see the same thing. We all seek out a group of peers who will corroborate our findings, no matter how biased. The ground-breakers are those who have the courage to stand alone when no one else agrees with them. Eventually the world will catch up with them–either that, or prove them wrong. It’s a messy process sometimes, as peer-review can be messy when personalities, assumptions, and styles clash.

      Without the scientific method we wouldn’t have nuclear weapons, polluted mother’s milk, and dreams of rocketing off to Mars. Earth is severely overpopulated with homonids, yet science works diligently with one hand to conquer disease so people can live longer while developing fiendish weapons with the other. Both projects pay good money. Scientists, like the rest of us, can be bought. Beware of making a virtue of practicing one method or another. Science, religion, and the humanities are not absolute goods in themselves. Everything we do is a matter of judgment. Scientists do not hold the patent on that.

      Good to hear from you. –Steve from Planet Earth

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